A Nightmare Visit for Chilean Author

Gable is a Los Angeles writer.

The series of incidents was so bizarre it might have been a chapter out of his latest published novel, "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero," a phantasmagoric tale of repression and exile.

On Aug. 2, Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, who lives most of the time in Durham, N.C., where he teaches international studies at Duke University, arrived in Santiago for a visit, accompanied by his two sons.

Dorfman was barred from entering his native country, and after being detained eight hours at the airport by immigration authorities, he was put on a plane to Buenos Aires. Since the ban did not apply to the children, Rodrigo, 20, stayed in Chile, but Dorfman took Joaquin, 8, with him.

Then on Aug. 15, Dorfman flew into Santiago again. The government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which had issued a secret order in October forbidding Dorfman to enter Chile, was suddenly letting him back in.

Forced Into Exile

For Dorfman, it was an ironic turn of events. Forced into exile after the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power, he had been permitted to return to Chile just four years ago.

"I've been sort of in a state of shock," said the 44-year-old writer by telephone at his home in Santiago. "It was very strange to be exiled, then re-exiled, then back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball."

In Chile, Dorfman spent time with his family, seeing friends, and dealing with the demands of being a public figure. "Even when I go out with the children to a park, people come with a book for me to autograph," he said, sounding amazed.

"The police did go to my press conference," he said. "A plainclothesman came in with my book and asked me to sign it. It was a very funny scene. Outside of that, there hasn't been anything."

Although admittedly exhausted, Dorfman, who returned to the United States in late August, was elated over what he modestly termed this "small victory." (The government has announced it was revoking exclusion orders against 21 other Chilean citizens in addition to Dorfman.)

Instant Best Seller

One result of the incident is that Dorfman's novel, "Widows," which was just published in Chile, has become an instant best seller there, selling 5,000 copies in a week. Published several years ago in English, "Widows" is about the plight of the disappeared. Set in a fictional Greek village, the novel is based on events in Chile during the early '70s, when thousands were killed or disappeared during the Pinochet regime.

Dorfman has just completed a new, nonpolitical novel to be published in Spanish in Argentina, is working on a nonfiction book on exile and is waiting to hear from the Mark Taper Forum about a production of "Widows," a play based on his novel.

Regarding his exclusion at Santiago, Dorfman said, "What's so strange about this case? It's the first time in the memory of most people that the government says they're doing something and then says they're backing off. So the pressure must have been quite extraordinary."

But it has clearly been a troubling experience for Dorfman, and he seems to feel some guilt about it. "I really didn't want this to happen. I've become something of a public figure, and it's not good for my mental health.

"My child has been so traumatized by this, and yet nothing very serious happened to him. He was not beaten up. I was not beaten up. What are the children of Chile living through when they see their parents beaten up, or unemployed, or eating in soup kitchens? Imagine the great majority of children who have no rights. If the people in the States could realize this drama of mine is very minimal next to what this country is living, it might help to understand why we desperately need democracy."

Since he is a relentless critic of the Pinochet regime, Dorfman was also concerned that some might view the entire event as a publicity stunt. And he immediately wanted to dispel that notion. "I came in on a Sunday," he said. "I hadn't told anybody I was coming. My plans were simply to arrive, see the family and register in the electoral rolls. I was going to do a couple of radio interviews, but that was the only public part of my visit."

Still, the exclusion was not entirely unexpected.

Earlier this year, Dorfman had planned to visit Chile but abruptly changed his mind after reports in the Argentine press that he had been killed during a general strike. Shortly after, he wrote in The Nation: "Even though the news of my death had been fraudulent, its possibility was all too real. Everybody who had read the Buenos Aires papers had found it quite natural that I, or any Chilean for that matter, could be murdered . . . ."

Shortly before the trip, Dorfman's wife, Angelica, told him she sensed something would go wrong and refused to go. As Dorfman himself admitted: "I had always supposed at some moment they were going to do something to me."

Fears for His Life

In an interview earlier this year, Dorfman said he fears for his life when he is in Chile ("If I didn't, I would be stupid"), but that he is determined not to let it consume him. "If I thought about it all the time I would be paralyzed.

"It has nothing to do with heroics. I think Brecht said this, 'Blessed is the country who needs no heroes.' I have no interest whatsoever in becoming a martyr."

In the United States, where Dorfman's confusing drama was played out almost daily in the national press, it's certain to pique interest in his novel, "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero," published by Viking in March.

Set in an unnamed Latin American republic, "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero" is a clear case of fiction imitating the horrors of life in Chile. Acts of murder, torture and disappearance occur with such random frequency in this book's nightmare dictatorship that it is taken for granted that anyone may be killed.

Like the characters in his book, Dorfman produced political comic strips in Chile and was among thousands who went into exile after the 1973 coup in which President Salvador Allende was killed. He spent seven years in Argentina, France and the Netherlands before settling in the United States.

Since coming here with his family in 1980, Dorfman has become a key figure in the Chilean opposition. He often jokingly refers to himself as a "professional dictator molestor," and his scathing editorials on Pinochet appear regularly in the U.S. press. In July, 1986, in response to the brutal murder of Rodrigo Rojas, a 19-year-old Chilean exile who had been beaten, doused with flammable liquid and set on fire by security forces, Dorfman embarked on a fierce media campaign. There was a news conference in Washington. There were television appearances and newspaper articles. "How long are we to tolerate such horror?" he wrote in the Washington Post. "Must a thousand Rodrigos die as the price we pay for getting back our country?"

No Reasons Given

Dorfman said he was never told the reasons for his exclusion from Chile ("They never explain to you why something happens"). But he said he believes it was precisely this campaign that prompted it. "It's pretty clear to me this is due to what I did in the American media. I was on 'Nightline,' I was on 'This Week With David Brinkley' and I think this really created a scandal."

He also suspects he was allowed back in for similar reasons. "This was the first time they had re-exiled somebody, and the outcry inside the country and abroad was extremely strong."

Describing relations between the United States and Chile as "contentious," Dorfman also noted the curious timing of the government's announcement. "Why did they do this on a Tuesday?" he asked. "Because on Wednesday four Republican congressmen were coming in. So they clearly wanted this out of the way."

As for evidence of an official hand, shortly before a visit to Chile in mid-August, Robert S. Gelbard, the deputy assistant secretary of state for South America, told the New York Times that the United States had "expressed concern quietly" about Dorfman's situation, and that he also believed the Chilean government realized "this was not in its own interests."

Book Tour

On a book tour to Los Angeles earlier this year, Dorfman spoke passionately about his years of exile. The son of a Chilean diplomat, Dorfman spent his early years in New York City, where his father was a diplomat at the United Nations.

"There is a terrible humiliation," he said of exile. "We were grown men and women who were making a living. We spoke the language. We could bring children into the world. All of a sudden I couldn't refer to my own counsel when I was in trouble. If there was a crisis in the family, there was no one I could turn to. Exile was in a terrible sense a death in life experience."

For Dorfman, "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero" was a way of coming to terms with the trauma of exile and the political violence that has devastated his country. "For 2 1/2 years after I left Chile, I was unable to write a word of fiction. I felt so let down. Then I wrote a series of poems on the 'disappeared.' My next step was 'Widows.' I was writing a totally realistic novel, but in a sense I was admitting that I couldn't write about Chile.

"In a sense, you become the guardian of the dead, of the voices that have been buried. I certainly never would have written this novel ("The Last Song") before my experience of exile."

Denounced by Sen. Helms

Though he has made his career as a journalist by denouncing the Pinochet regime (a fact that has led Sen. Jesse Helms, a fervent supporter of the dictator, to accuse Dorfman of being "one of the prime disinformation agents of the radical Chilean left"), he said he doesn't believe there is a conflict between his work as a writer and an activist.

"Our concept of the intellectual in Latin America is totally different from your concept here. When you say 'political activist,' I say, 'No, I am political.' And anybody who is not political when you have a dictatorship in your country, when you have people dying of hunger, the degree of illiteracy that you have, and the degree of absolute lying and confusion that there is, would be inhuman."

One reason he wrote "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero" is his belief that perhaps fiction can convey the inconceivable in a way that journalism cannot.

"It is extremely difficult for a country that has never been occupied, that has never known this sort of fear, to understand it. The innocence of the American people makes it very difficult to get through, because even some of the most caring people find it difficult to put themselves in the situation of what it means to be absolutely vulnerable. Latin American literature is a very good way of understanding it. When you say millions of children die of hunger, it is different from telling the story of one child that rebels because of hunger."

"The Last Song of Manuel Sendero" centers in part on the political antics of an extraordinary child. As Dorfman wrote: "Who could have believed that a year and half after the child had been conceived . . . the kid had still not made its appearance into this world, was still waiting there, inside, refusing to come out?

"I will do everything I can to have the babies born. You see, I think the babies are real. They are the utopia that are inside each of us. There are millions of people who are born and never born--they don't leave any change in the world. To read the novel means I want people to come away with a sense of what is unborn inside them."

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